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“A different standard”: Holly Shenefelt on gendered expectations during basic training

A woman in a camouflage uniform smiles at the camera.
Holly Shenefelt

A couple of summers ago, the nonprofit StoryCorps hosted an oral history project here in Wyoming in which veterans and their families recorded honest and personal stories about their military experiences. We’re grateful and excited to share those conversations with our listeners as a monthly series on Open Spaces.

This month, we’re highlighting Colonel Holly Shenefelt and her colleague Jacque Morey as they discuss how gender roles during basic training have changed and why Shenefelt joined the military.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Jacque Morey: My name is Jacque Morey. I'm 39 years old. Today's date is July 28, 2022. We're in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and I'm interviewing Colonel Holly Shenefelt.

Holly Shenefelt: And I'm Colonel Holly Shenefelt. I'm 51.

JM: So, I wanted to start off with what your current military assignment is.

HS: So, my current military assignment is with the Wyoming Military Department. And that includes the Air National Guard and the Army National Guard both. My title is Chief of the Joint Staff.

My first thought about really joining the military… my dad was in the Air National Guard. He worked in the civil engineering squadron. He’d be away for the summers. And of course, that was not the trigger to think about. The military was actually the trigger of wanting to go to college and the fact that my parents had agreed to pay for one semester, but beyond that, I needed to figure out how to fund it myself.

So, walking through the mall, I ended up in the recruiter's office. My civilian acquired skill at the time was a clarinet player. And the active duty, of course, tried to talk me into it. But then the National Guard actually got a hold of me, and I ended up joining the Army National Guard, which my dad was in the Air National Guard. And so, it was interesting how that happened.

JM: Did you play the clarinet? Did you join the band?

HS: I did. So, I joined the 67th Army Band, which is a Wyoming National Guard unit. So luckily, there was a Wyoming Army National Guard recruiter in that office at the time. And they just happened to overhear the conversation. And so I really joined playing the clarinet, but I ultimately ended up… I got out about 10 years later as a saxophone player.

JM: Do you still play either the clarinet or the saxophone?

HS: I do not. Kind of an interesting fact about that is I also learned I didn't just learn the alto saxophone, but I learned soprano saxophone. So, I competed in the Miss Wyoming Pageant back in the day and my talent was playing soprano sax, a Kenny G song.

So, I actually signed the paperwork, I [had] just turned 18. I graduated high school on the seventh of May, and I went to basic training on the 10th of May.

To pass the time, they'd put us in a truck and drive us out to the forest, this is in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, drive us out to the forest and I spent, with several other females, raking up pine needles and pine cones, and separating the pine needles from the pine cones and putting the pine cones in a pile and spreading out the pine needles back over the forest floor.

JM: Oh, wow. How many days did they have to do that?

HS: Three or four days while we waited for enough females to arrive.

JM: Were you relieved when they told you that you're going to start basic training?

HS: No, I thought, 'What did I get myself into?' Back in the day, the females who had my particular skill, number one, we came in at a higher rank. But we also had a little bit of a difference between a male and a female. So, the females were allowed to do – and I did – a split option, which means that one summer you would go to basic training. And then if you had a technical school, you would go to the technical school the next summer between classes.

But for males, the males had to go from basic training directly to be in a band and do skills qualification for four months or three. I can't remember the time frame. But at the time, females didn't have to do that. But males did. And so, it was very traumatic when I was told I would have to stay because of course I was supposed to start college. And in the end, it worked out, but just maybe that was the first sign that the military life has some unique hurdles in it.

JM: Yeah, especially for women at that time.

HS: Yeah, absolutely. A different standard is the males had to stay and do certain things and the females got to go home.

JM: I would just assume that's changed now for band members, that the training is the same regardless of gender.

HS: Yeah, I don't know that answer to be honest anymore.

JM: I'd be shocked, I guess.

HS: I would be shocked if it was not the same today. Equitable.

Ryan Kelley works as a Producer at Wyoming Public Media. Kelley was born and raised in Greeley, Colorado and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2019. From there, Kelley began working in commercial radio as a board operator in Greeley, bringing live and local programming to Northern Colorado listeners. In his free time, Kelley enjoys hiking, music, and getting the opportunity to explore his new home in Wyoming.
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